Here comes the sun canoe, as Amazonians take on Big Oil

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A canoe slides noiselessly upstream through a landscape of luminous bright clouds reflected in the water. A team of young indigenous people are onboard.

Such vessels are an essential and ubiquitous part of life in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but this one boasts a hugely symbolic difference from its predecessors. It is powered by the sun.

The nine members of the Achuar indigenous group on board are returning home after learning about solar power and installation. It is a technological development they hope to use in their battle with a more traditional power source that threatens their very existence. Oil.

“They have sold us out, they have sold our resources,” says Nantu, 31, referring to the authorities in Quito. “And they are expanding the oil wells. They are stealing from us without us noticing. That’s why we are now standing up, to defend what’s ours, our territories, our way of life.”

Nantu and his colleagues check the state of a canoe's solar panels

Ecuador’s oil industry has wrought tremendous disruption and destruction on the peoples of the Amazon rainforest. It is not just the pollution, heavy machinery and deforestation. It is roads as well.

A highway that starts in the town of Puyo has already penetrated dozens of kilometres into the territory of the neighbouring Shuar indigenous group, and it is about to enter Achuar territory. “The road is a poison,” says Jose, Nantu’s companion. “The road doesn’t respect us. It’s been imposed on us from the city. It’s a very dangerous territory for us.”

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The solar canoes are a defiant attempt to stand up to this incursion. The project, conceived by the Quito-based Kara Solar Foundation, aims to connect nine communities in Achuar territory with public transport powered by the sun.

The project envisages an Amazon teeming with solar canoes that will potentially replace the tens of thousands of vessels that burn thousands cubic metres of fuel each year.

As Kara Solar’s founder, Oliver Utne, puts it: “Sustained and truly intercultural collaborations can create technological solutions that serve indigenous communities, rather than destroying them.”

A team of indigenous technicians installs solar panels on the roof of a new canoe

Ecuador’s oil industry pumps about 500,000 barrels a day, most of it extracted from reserves in the Amazon rainforest. The oil is then piped to the coast and shipped thousands of miles north for refining. Much is sold for export, but some is transported back to Ecuador and driven by road back to petrol stations.

From there it is poured into drums and transported in trucks or cars to to be used in canoes that in turn are propelled by two- or four-stroke outboard engines or smaller long-tailed engines known locally as peque-peques. The oil goes back into the rainforest from where it was extracted as pollution.

The solar canoes are an attempt to forge an alternative. As with any research project, the two boats in operation have had technical problems and there have been accidents in the tricky territory. The river floods periodically and there are often currents, whirlpools and underwater obstacles to overcome.

The surface of the canoe’s solar panel needs to be optimised so that it can carry the greatest number of photovoltaic cells without endangering the vessel’s stability. The durability and storage capacity of the batteries also need to be improved, to make them lighter and ideally to replace the lead with lithium without increasing the cost.

Nantu shows the battery pack of one of the solar-powered canoes

There is a long list of other improvements that are needed, but the process is well under way. During the next phase of development, solar recharging stations will be installed along the canoe route. Seven young Achuar people are being trained in using the technology. These are “intercultural training” programmes taught by peers, who are also instructed by indigenous technicians.

Concerned about the future of a growing population, the Achuar community is gradually diversifying economically in terms of moving beyond self-sufficiency toward sustainability. There is already an ecotourism project where as many as 24 people can stay in two cabins managed by the community, and a balanced food project that uses a solar power plant. The main and imminent threat, however, is undoubtedly the proximity of the road.

Nantu makes a very clear complaint to the authorities in Quito: “I would tell the government not to carry out projects without consulting the indigenous peoples. They should carry out projects in consultation with the people, who are the owners of the territories. They should stop expanding oil frontiers and the arteries that reach the outer corners of the Amazon. It’s becoming very dangerous for us.”

Nantu is aware that changes are taking place in the climate and of how global heating affects the territory and the world. “There is some variation of life here in the jungle. The flowering cycle has changed by one to two months. The rains are too intense, and the sun is too strong.”

He has a vision for the future of his five children. He imagines an Amazon capable of being economically self-sufficient, a few community tourism centres managed by indigenous people and solar canoes managed by the Achuar with recharging stations along the river. No roads, no pipelines, no oil.

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